Young soccer fan gets a King-sized surprise

INDIANAPOLIS -- I saw freedom in a boy's smile today.

Samuel Sawyer is 11 years old and confined to a wheelchair. He is sweet. His smile is shy. (But whose isn't, I guess, when surrounded by a bunch of random people?) Samuel was born with spina bifida, a condition that occurs in the womb when a baby's spinal column doesn't fully close. He rolled into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday as a guest of Richard Petty Motorsports, Aric Almirola and sponsor Eckrich. He was oblivious as to why. He should be. He's 11.

Eckrich sponsors a program called Operation Inspiration, which supports and honors military families. Samuel's father, Mike, is a Navy veteran of more than 25 years. The Sawyer family would be honored on this day with a free trip to Victory Junction Gang Camp and free groceries at Kroger for a year. But that's not all.

Samuel loves soccer. He loves the angles man must take to meet ball. He loves that the game teaches unforeseen nuances each time he plays. He loves that it offers him an equal playing field. Or at least it once did.

He might just have scored a distinct advantage.

During the news conference to honor Mike Sawyer for his military service to America, Eckrich, Almirola and Richard Petty gave Samuel a gift: a brand-new wheelchair, specially equipped so he could live the dream of playing power soccer.

It is the fastest chair on the market, and includes a steel roll cage around the feet area. It is painted hunter green and Petty Blue, and has the iconic Petty 43 on the back. Petty and Almirola autographed it.

All Samuel could do was smile and shyly mutter, "Wow."

I wanted to chat with him. Neat kid. I asked him what this meant for his soccer game. His right hand danced in a back-and-forth sort of fashion, on and around the joystick power lever. I wondered if that was his way of revving the engine at the stoplight, primed to hammer the throttle and let the horses run. I asked. It was.

New horses -- thoroughbreds -- unexpected and therefore totally shocking.

Samuel's jaw twitched with glee as he described how this new chair would improve his game -- and above that let him live his love for it.

And he smiled.

And I saw promise in his eyes. And his dad's eyes and his brothers' eyes, too.

It was the promise of freedom -- the freedom to run wide open and the freedom to play.

That is wonderful.